June 18, 2005

Spiking the Kool Aid

Johannes Ernst has been -- with some shouting out of the wilderness from me and others -- crystalizing his thinking about "Why digital identity matters." His most recent posting in the thread is here: More Feedback on my Why Digital Identity Matters piece. I'm on board. I've bought it all. I've drunk the Kook Aid. And, like Johannes (not to put words in his mouth), I think digital identity's potential impact on business and life could be extraordinary. Probably though, because digital identity is a structure that will enable other capabilities, it's impact will be felt in unanticipated -- perhaps even unintended -- ways. That's the danger.

While we all (this band of merry identity prankgang-sters) argue over "laws" and "standards," and bun-fight about what's open v. proprietary; while we wax about readily visible applications to help business particularly do more better, and fret about whether the identified person is a "user" or a "market" or an "employee" or a "citizen," and cringe over the many, many other minutae of how this system could or should work, it's full breadth moves further out of our grasp. Which sounds vaguely Eastern. But, for all you scientific rationalists out there, there is an axiom from physics -- don't remember its name nor the exact wording (Bohr or Heisenberg, perhaps) -- that says that you can either know the velocity or position of a body, not both. I see the same thing happening in its own way with digital identity.

Maybe it has to happen. The devil's in the details as they say. Somebody -- maybe everybody -- has to get deep and dirty into the how the system has to work to address all the known potential issues and concerns. That would ensure we were creating a "best practice." And, in point of fact, only in that way can the architecture be created. Most engineers find it difficult to implement sweeping generalities: bridges fall down under those conditions. And we don't want a system that has the potential to be foundational for so much in the future to be unstable.

But what if it's a strong foundation for the wrong things? What if in looking hard at the details and working diligently to identify the requirements, constraints, and conditions of what we know today (i.e., the position in space) we are successful? What if smart people like Kim Cameron and so many others architect and build against all that we know? That would be great wouldn't it? Except of course because we know the position, we have foregone knowing the direction and velocity. That could be a problem.

Nothing is at rest, relatively and truly. Digital identity is not at rest. In fact, we tend to all agree that it's just beginning to pick up speed. And, it picking up speed has the collateral effect of causing shifts to the understanding of identity and social systems more broadly -- more philosophically, if you will. The whole system is complex and it moves. That movement in the broad environment is as or more important than the movement of digital identity alone. Why? Well, consider: Athough I'm not a pilot, I've read a lot about flying (in preparation to take lessons, I think) and understand that a pilot can follow the correct directional vectors, putting on the right amount of throttle, and still end up way off course. Why? The air moves and the plane moves right along with it so that the directional vectors are themselves valid only at a particular point in time . They become increasingly wrong, to the point of being detrimental, as time passes. There are so many obvious examples of the environment within which digital identity exists moving. Somebody -- maybe everybody -- has to keep an eye on it.

Why have I gotten all allegorical and indirect? I think it's because there's no easy and direct "business-like" answer to the line of thought Johannes has raised. At least none that will be valuable for very long, despite there being an excellent opportunity to use extensive pseudo-language to communicate the urgency of activity. But the questions might illuminate the essential need to keep a broad field of vision (i.e., check up on the direction and velocity) about what we're doing even as we narrow in on the details of the activities at hand (i.e., focus on the position). Or we might be furiously creating an irrelevancy.

Or maybe I'm full of shit. It's happened before. Not often, but it's happened.

Posted by Grayson at June 18, 2005 02:20 PM